Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Praying with Our Lady of the Hermitage

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is honored by many titles and in countless places by Christians around the world. These various names of Mary often tell us something about her role in the story of salvation, such as “Mother of God,” “Cause of our Joy,” and “Ark of the Covenant.” Other titles of Mary tell us something of the unique role she plays in the life of the Church and of individual Christians: “Comforter of the Afflicted,” “Help of Christians,” “Mother of Good Counsel,” and “Queen of All Saints.” Finally, there are those titles of Mary that are associated with specific places like Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, or La Salette. Each of these titles, in its own way, expresses a faith and devotion that was first voiced by the woman who cried out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you” (Luke 11:27).
 
I have three titles of Mary that are especially meaningful for me and seem to capture my own devotion to the Mother of God. They are “Mother of Sorrows,” “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” and “Our Lady of Einsiedeln.” This last title (meaning “Our Lady of the Hermitage”) comes from the historical Benedictine Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Swiss monks brought devotion to Our Lady of Einsiedeln to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century and, from their first foundation in southern Indiana, Benedictine monks and nuns carried this unique name of Mary across the United States and into parts of Latin and South America.
 
"Our Lady of the Hermitage" in the
Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln

While in many places Mary is honored under her title of “Our Lady of Mt. Carmel,” each July 16, these same monks, nuns, and sisters, along with those associated with their communities, celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Einsiedeln.  

Thinking about this particular feast and title of Our Lady, I’m always struck by the word “hermitage.” The hermitage in question is that of the ninth century monk and martyr, Meinrad, who lived the final years of his life in Switzerland’s black forest, spending his days in prayer and offering hospitality to travelers who made their way to his small cabin. A generation after his death, a new monastery was built on the site of his hermitage and this was the foundation that became the Abbey of Einsiedeln. The Gothic statue venerated there dates from sometime around the fourteenth century and seems to have replaced a much older image that is believed to have been destroyed in a fire.  

A hermitage is a place of retreat and prayer and I believe that honoring Mary under the title of “Our Lady of the Hermitage” is about much, much more than honoring the history of a particular image or the history of a family of Benedictines. For me, this title of Mary has always been a reminder that Mary was a woman of prayer. And, as a woman of prayer, she is a model for each of us who follow her Son.

In two places in Luke’s Gospel we are told that Mary pondered what was happening in her life and the life of her Son “in her heart.” The first is immediately following Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, with the accompanying singing angels and visiting shepherds (2:19) and the other is after Mary and Joseph find the lost twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem (he had been missing for three days): “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51). Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), reflecting on these things, wrote:
Mary, who had been troubled by the sight of the angel, now remains calm before the succession of such miracles as the pregnancy of the barren woman [i.e. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist], motherhood in virginity, speech from a mute [i.e. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 1)], the adoration of the Magi, the expectation of Simeon, and the witness of the stars. And, the Gospel says, “She kept all these things in her heart.” Even though she was the Mother of the Lord, she wanted to learn his precepts. She, who had given birth to God, desired to know God still better.”—from De virginibus, 2

While Mary enjoyed a relationship with Christ that no other human person can have—that of a mother—she felt wonder and awe in the face of the great events to which she had agreed to play a part. We can imagine that the Mary of Holy Saturday, mourning the death of her crucified Son, would have also looked into her heart to try to make sense of everything that had occurred. This was the same heart that Simeon had promised would be pierced many years earlier when she and Joseph had presented Jesus in the Temple—a heart that had known the joys of motherhood and that was now pierced with the sword of grief.  

Finally, we have Mary as she is presented in the Acts of the Apostles, gathered with Jesus’ closest friends and followers, waiting and praying in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:14). Waiting, again, for a miraculous birth—but not the birth of a child, rather, the birth of the Church. 

Mary was a woman of expectation, who watched and waited. But, she was also a woman of prayer. And her way of praying teaches us something about how we might pray. 

It is significant that St. Luke tells us of Mary turning to prayer in times of great change, challenge, and possibility. She was sustained by the public, liturgical prayer of her Jewish faith, but beyond that, we are also given glimpses into Mary’s faith through her openness to what God was asking of her and her moments of prayer, themselves. 

I’ve been reflecting lately on the question of why so many Christians seem to be suspicious of piety or anything that seems too devotional. Sadly, it seems, this aversion extends to prayer.

Perhaps, this is because of a misunderstanding of what the true purpose of prayer is—ultimately enriching our relationship with God. Too often, prayer is seen as something rote and simplistic. Many, including clergy and religious I know (both Catholic and Protestant), prefer to use techniques like centering prayer or breathing exercises, if they pray at all. And, while these are good and valuable forms of prayer, I find myself wondering how enriching they are, particularly as it comes to fostering a union with God and, like Mary, seeking to discern how God is at work in the challenges of life, including illness, family issues, ministerial obligations, and mortality. It seems that by not being willing to humble ourselves in prayer, we are denying the possibility and power of expanding our unique relationship with the God who loves us and we fail to imitate the humility and obedience of Jesus, himself.  

Prayer is difficult and requires discipline. Whether it is lectio divina (spiritual reading), Eucharistic devotions, fostering a liturgical spirituality, or simply setting aside ten or fifteen minutes each day to prayerfully reflect on what is happening in your life in conversation with God, prayer takes commitment. In my own life, I’ve found that it is unnecessarily difficult if it only happens periodically and really it isn’t as helpful if I only do it when things are really bad or really good. 

So, today, while we remember Mary, the woman of prayer, we are given another reminder of the centrality of prayer. All of us have challenges and needs to present to God, both our own and others, and we also have countless things for which we should be grateful. These are the fodder of prayer. And prayer is worth the effort. Prayer is essential for a full and fruitful life of discipleship.

May Our Lady of the Hermitage inspire each of us to seek out a place of quiet and peace each day to lift our hearts and minds to God in humble, grateful prayer.

 
A Prayer in honor of Our Lady of Einsiedeln +
O God, who gave the Holy Spirit to your Apostles
as they prayed with Mary the Mother of Jesus,
grant that through her intercession
we may faithfully serve your majesty
and extend, by word and example,
the glory of your name.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal, Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary- D: Our Lady, Queen of Apostles)

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